A steady hand for the tottering ideal of liberal education
Summarizing the latest round of complaints about higher education in The New York Review of Books,
Peter Brooks describes an “indiscriminate flailing about in criticism
of the university, some of it justified, much of it misdirected, and
some pernicious.” Certain authors appear to be shocked that education
doesn’t automatically make one a moral person. Others are bewildered
that the effects of a liberal arts degree can’t be quantified like in
any other industry, as if students were products on an assembly line.
Indeed, in the last half-decade, observers of American academia have
identified two equally lamentable pitfalls: expecting too much from a
university education, and not expecting enough.
Stanley Fish (Save the World on Your Own Time,
2008) chastised modern professors for attempting a “character
transplant” in students who had “signed on for something more modest, to
wit, a course of instruction.” Charles Murray (Real Education, 2008)
made similar points, rebuking the impossibly high ideals of what he
called “educational romanticism.” Alongside these critiques, however,
came publications that mourn higher education’s failure to address the
bigger, interdisciplinary questions. These include recent books by
Anthony Kronman (Education’s End, 2007), Martha Nussbaum (Not for Profit, 2010), and Mark C. Taylor (Crisis on Campus, 2010).
Kronman, to choose just one example, laments, “I have watched the
question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized
academic instruction and seen it pushed to the margins of professional
respectability in the humanities, where it once occupied a central and
But while critiques of both romanticism and shortsightedness need to
be made, rarely do commentators on higher education appear to grasp the
full contour of what has been lost. It remains strange that
universities, inhabited by a disproportionate number of historians,
usually limit themselves to seriously investigating the last century or
so when diagnosing their malaise. Medieval wisdom on education can
provide some missing perspective, regarding both what learning is and
the setting in which it best occurs.
Augustine wrote De Magistro, a dialogue in the form of a conversation between him and his son, in the late fourth century. De Magistro
is a surprising treatise. For starters, we find a fourth-century
thinker accurately diagnosing the modern/postmodern trajectory that has
paralyzed so many educators today:
For just as it is proper to assent to things well
explored and perused, so it is perilous to consider things known which
are not known. Because there is a danger, when those things are often
upset which we supposed would stand firmly and endure, lest we fall into
such distrust and hatred of reason that it might seem that confidence
in evident truth itself is not warranted.
Following modernity’s epistemic avarice, contemporary thought has
indeed fallen, at points, into a “distrust and hatred of reason.” But
Augustine not only diagnoses this intellectual condition, he provides a
way forward as well.
One reason educational romanticism has had such a grip in American
schooling is that it contains an element of truth. Indeed,
student-centered, “you can do it” approaches have some value,
and Augustine agrees. “Who is so stupidly curious,” he asks, “as to send
his son to school in order that he may learn what the teacher thinks?”
Those who are called pupils consider within themselves whether
what has been explained has been said truly… Thus they learn, and when
the interior truth makes known to them that true things have been said,
they applaud, but without knowing that instead of applauding teachers
they are applauding learners.
The difference between Augustine and educational romanticism,
however, is that the “inner oracle” for Augustine is not the latent
power of the unaided student. Instead, this power comes from God: “He
who is said to reside in the interior man is Christ, that is, the
unchangeable excellence of God and His everlasting wisdom, which every
rational soul does indeed consult.” While unquestionably Christian,
Augustine’s view is not strictly sectarian—he refers to every rational
soul. Augustine combines skepticism in the power of mere words with
confidence in a power higher than any human teacher.
Nearly a millennium later, in a treatise also entitled De Magistro, Thomas
Aquinas concretized Augustine’s teaching philosophy with two
illustrations. First, Aquinas uses a horticultural analogy to caution
against Augustine’s Platonism. “Knowledge does preexist in the student,”
Aquinas admits, though “not completely but in a seminal state.” Aquinas
broadens the role of a good teacher, who is actively to foster an
environment where such “seeds” of knowledge can grow: “Now while it is
true that no created power has implanted these knowledge ‘seeds’ in us,
still the action of a created power [i.e., a teacher] can realize the
potential of those seeds.”
Aquinas’ second analogy is a medical one. A physician, according to
Aquinas, cannot heal the body. Instead, a physician creates the
stimulants and conditions for the body’s healing itself. In the same
way, the teacher cannot inspire, illuminate, or impart genuine
knowledge—but diligent teachers can greatly improve the conditions for
such illumination. For Aquinas, the teacher plays a somewhat larger role
within Augustine’s nearly mystical view of student-centered learning.
But it is one thing to expound upon the mystery of learning, and
another to discuss the practical conditions necessary for such learning
to occur. It is here that ancient and contemporary educational practices
may seem most disparate. In an essay titled “Alexandria: A School for
Training in Virtue,” Robert Louis Wilken relates that the first-century
teacher Apollonius of Tyana gave up on lecturing to large audiences,
insisting, “No discourse can be really useful, unless it is delivered to
a single individual.” Plutarch agreed, adding, “Admonitions to specific
persons produce the most useful fruit.”
The Catechetical school of Alexandria, which drew on Apollonius and
Plutarch, understood this well. Learning had to be intimate, because
only in this way could a “character transplant” (so distasteful to
Stanley Fish) occur. In The Tutor, for example, Clement of
Alexandria argued that the role of the teacher was to better students’
souls, not just their minds. Intellectual training certainly followed,
but the Alexandrians understood that if knowledge were not planted in
the seedbed of wisdom, it would either never take root, or—far
worse—grow into something dangerous. From Alexandria we learn that
ethics was never a sub-discipline of the educational curriculum, but
was, in a way, its entirety.
What’s more, the primary medium for such instruction was not a
course, but friendship. Origen, Alexandria’s greatest teacher,
understood friendship to be that “affable and affectionate disposition
which is shown in the [teacher’s] words and his associations.” A chief
metaphor used by Origen’s students to describe their teacher’s legendary
effectiveness was the friendship of David and Jonathan described in the
Bible. That very scene holds an honored place in the finest visual
manifesto for liberal arts renewal that I am aware of—the window scheme
of the Princeton University Chapel.
A 19th century master of this pedagogical ideal of friendship
was John Henry Newman, who lived it for two decades as a tutor at Oriel
College, where the University of Oxford contracted to a human scale.
Christopher Olaf Blum’s essay “Newman’s Collegiate Ideal” explains that
Newman’s focus on friendship enabled the university to be “not a chance
collection of individuals building their careers, but a kind of
fellowship, even a friendship, whose characteristic activity was to
‘rejoice in the truth’ (gaudium de veritate).” Common meals
were the soil where acquaintanceship grew into friendship, which
Aristotle understood to be among the highest of life’s rewards. Genuine
learning without the “pure and clear atmosphere of thought” fostered by
true friendship was difficult to achieve. Like Origen, Newman understood
that “personal influence… was the means of propagating the truth.”
In an age of unmanageable class sizes and overworked (and out of
work) professors, advocating such an intimate scale of virtue-based
learning may seem naive. Yet such ideals are probably closer to most of
our own learning histories than we might think. If a given class
distilled more than mere information, but instead shaped our lives and
futures, some kind of friendship probably played a role. Wherever our
own education occurred, or is occurring, transformative learning
continues to happen as it always has—through communities of friendships
upheld by some measure of mutual virtue. Even within oversized,
impersonal institutions, such communities tend to arise spontaneously.
The bloated modern educational system may be due for collapse. But so
far as I am aware, there is no university where the mystery of learning
as described by Augustine and Aquinas has been successfully prohibited,
or where the Alexandrian ideal of communities of virtue seeking truth
through friendships has been effectively proscribed. Whether in the form
of a well-managed classroom, a religious fellowship, an Honors College,
or one of the university’s increasing numbers of satellite
institutions, communities of renewal in higher education have either
recovered these principles, or never lost them in the first place. We
can wait for massive reform to fix our troubled universities, or we can
continue practicing such ideals wherever we are today. That may be the
only way to bring about any broader solution.
Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com. This article has been republished with permission from Public Discourse.
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